Newsweek’s Jon Mecham explains in today’s New York Times what Confederate symbolism really means today:
Since Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Confederate symbols have tended to be more about white resistance to black advances than about commemoration. In the 1880s and 1890s, after fighting Reconstruction with terrorism and after the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, states began to legalize segregation. For white supremacists, iconography of the “Lost Cause” was central to their fight; Mississippi even grafted the Confederate battle emblem onto its state flag.
But after the Supreme Court allowed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Jim Crow was basically secure. There was less need to rally the troops, and Confederate imagery became associated with the most extreme of the extreme: the Ku Klux Klan.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, the rebel flag and other Confederate symbolism resurfaced as the civil rights movement spread. In 1948, supporters of Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket waved the battle flag at campaign stops.
Then came the school-integration rulings of the 1950s. Georgia changed its flag to include the battle emblem in 1956, and South Carolina hoisted the colors over its Capitol in 1962 as part of its centennial celebrations of the war.
As the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter approaches in 2011, the enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states’ rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked.
Exactly, and it was that inexorable link that Governor McDonnell embarrassingly forgot to even mention in his initial proclamation marking Confederate History Month in Virginia.
This is not an issue that’s going away. It’s been almost 150 years since the Civil War ended and Confederate symbols have not gone away despite the fact that more and more people are realizing that the regime they represent is not some noble Lost Cause, but an illegitimate nation created to deny any rights to an entire race. I would like to think that the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial would lead people in the South to finally realize the truth about the regime they purport to celebrate, but I’m not optimistic.
Perhaps what we need is Ed Kilgore’s suggestion for a Neo-Confederate History Month:
[A]s a white southerner old enough to remember the final years of Jim Crow, when every month was Confederate History Month, I have a better idea for McDonnell: Let’s have a Neo-Confederate History Month that draws attention to the endless commemorations of the Lost Cause that have wrought nearly as much damage as the Confederacy itself.
It would be immensely useful for Virginians and southerners generally to spend some time reflecting on the century or so of grinding poverty and cultural isolation that fidelity to the Romance in Gray earned for the entire region, regardless of race. Few Americans from any region know much about the actual history of Reconstruction, capped by the shameful consignment of African Americans to the tender mercies of their former masters, or about the systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens (and in some places, particularly McDonnell’s Virginia, of poor whites) that immediately followed.
A Neo-Confederate History Month could be thoroughly bipartisan. Republicans could enjoy greater exposure to the racism of such progressive icons as William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, not to mention Democratic New Deal crusaders in the South like Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo. The capture of the political machinery of Republican and Democratic parties in a number of states, inside and beyond the South, by the revived Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, would be an interesting subject for further study as well.
Most of all, a Neo-Confederate History Month could remind us of the last great effusion of enthusiasm for Davis and Lee and Jackson and all the other avatars of the Confederacy: the white southern fight to maintain racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when “Dixie” was played as often as the national anthem at most white high school football games in the South; when Confederate regalia were attached to state flags across the region; and when the vast constitutional and political edifice of pre-secession agitprop was brought back to life in the last-ditch effort to make the Second Reconstruction fail like the first.
Sounds like a good idea.